‘Cancel Culture’ and the Fate of Community

“A force that finds its meaning in the cancellation of… difficult ideas hampers the creative spirit of a society and strikes at the complex and diverse nature of its culture…But this is where we are. We are a culture in transition, and it may be that we are heading toward a more equal society – I don’t know – but what essential values will we forfeit in the process?”

– Nick Cave, Interview

There is sad tragedy in now being forced to crush by the sheer weight of numbers what we oppose, something upsetting to our whole Western tradition of truth, reality, objectivity and rationality to believe we stand so firmly on the grounds of truth that we can obliterate by flash mob whatever does not comply. This is an exceedingly low form of discourse, or more precisely, to alter Orwell a bit, being right is not statistical.

– Joseph Natoli, Clear Markers and Dark Delusions (CounterPunch)

The Root of Cancel Culture Is Self-Cancellation

I’m probably not the only 60-something who has felt, between lockdown isolation, serious talk of “herd immunity,” and Malthusian hints of the expendability of vulnerable people coming from political “leaders,” a bit undervalued (except by the pharmaceutical industry), the chill of “cancel culture” brushing my cheek. We’ve all by now know of instances of “the practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies [for saying something] objectionable or offensive.” Recently the NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, notable for having “reared” AOC and highly influential among the new generation of activists, “disinvited” the black, socialist scholar Adolph Reed to speak. He intended to argue against the left’s current exclusive focus on race, which he sees the Democratic Party using as a “dodge” to avoid dealing with the bigger economic issues (i.e., capitalism, and wealth redistribution). According to Cornel West, Reed, now emeritus, is “the greatest democratic theorist of his generation.” Thus the ideas of a black Marxist, perfectly valid, coming from decades of scholarship, and from his own experience growing up in the Jim Crow South are canceled by brothers and sisters on the Left.

The harmful limits that cancel culture sets on freedom of expression make the artist in me shudder. By rights we should all be terrified when it rears its ugly head! Besides the affront to democracy, inasmuch as who we are is limited by who we are allowed to be in our difference in the public realm, cancel power is a grave threat to individuality. As such it threatens the dream of an inclusive, interdependent community. After all, canceling is just a logical extension of capitalism’s survival-of-the-fittest, me-first, profoundly materialist zeitgeist; a subtler but equally potent realization of the discardability of human beings.

In fact, the power to cancel that’s arisen on liberal society’s “macro” level with cellphone technology and mass use of social media, merely reflects the “micro” level in which each of us is taught from birth both to “get an education in order to succeed” and to “self-cancel.” That is, to be successful we must (with the help of schooling) efface the authority intrinsic to our human being, located in the soul, that is our very protection against discardability. Only the bottom-up restoration of authority at the level of the individual heart, and in the local world of family and face-to-face community can have the power to defy the self-cancellation upon which neoliberal injustice depends.

Respectfully, only people whose “bodies are on the frontline” in committed efforts to cultivate interdependent unity, rootedness and positive (non-repressive) stability in families can know the full extent of what such efforts are up against, due to the steady disintegration of families in liberal society. Unless one is directly, personally involved in conscious efforts to preserve on-the-ground community, one is likely unaware of the degree to which the “communal arts” have been lost. Living separately in bourgeois reality, buoyed by the compensations provided to those with stable jobs and decent incomes and benefits, it’s possible not to notice what poor facsimiles of family and community we’ve accustomed ourselves to. One is unlikely to notice that the intergenerational mutuality needed to fulfill the circle of human community, and specifically the role of elders -i.e., those who embody and thus can restore human value over materialist value in communities – has gone the way of the dodo. Minus that role, accustomed to lifetimes of self-cancellation, people just get old, perhaps deserving of society’s vicious agism.

I say this not to induce paranoia in the Boomer generation. However, the young cannot be depended upon to take up our problem. Only we old “dodos” – not so cute as the polar bear, nor so iconic as the Bengal tiger, can authorize ourselves. One of the indicators of a society with positive longevity rates, I was once told by a friend who’s knowledgeable about alternative medicine, is whether or not it honors its elders. As a measure of health, this makes sense to me. In my case, I found I was fully able to honor my parents only posthumously, when they no longer could deflect the respect due them when they were alive. That “deflection,” the failure to provide a firmness or sternness against which the children must run up, is lack of self, or self-cancellation. As a defining earmark of liberal egalitarian, reflexively anti-authoritarian society, the failure to demand respect as an aspect of love drives the extinction of familial and communal elders, their ongoing replacement by professional, impersonal authority, and the destruction of families. In contrast, when I observe people in immigrant-rich Utica whose cultures still demand of them traditional intergenerational mutuality, I frequently see signs of the familial health that we’ve lost as a consequence of liberalism’s dogmatic egalitarian demands.

Having been liberally raised, I’m as unsuited to the patriarchal “family values” kind of conservatism, often racism-tainted, as any liberal. But still we might ask: How might we attain the intergenerational, communal health that’s at least possible within the traditional social order to which we no longer subscribe? And how, without that restoration of the complications and conflicts of relatedness, can the call to “return to the local” mean anything but a way for the privileged young (and able), while working passionately at matters of diversity, to retain their me-focused anxieties, complex gender identity confusions and technology dependence?

The problem is immense, but not insoluble. Surely we see we can only give or receive intergenerational honor in this post-patriarchal era to the degree we are capable of honoring (not canceling!) ourselves. To get there, the “me-firstism”central to neoliberalism’s white supremacism, classism, agism, sexism, etc. – “the spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self” (Chomsky) – , must be understood not as based on confidence in one’s superior worth, but its opposite – a deep, abiding belief in one’s lack of self-worth as a human being. This unacknowledged, unchallenged belief functions alike in the excessively quiescent and the hubristic. However, the sign the belief is there and unchallenged is unmistakeable in society’s failure to value supremely the health of the whole.

The dogmatic liberal egalitarian ethos ( which warns us against putting ourselves “over” or “above” others) though appearing to champion the worth of individuals, in fact does the opposite. It stands in the way of challenging the deeply embedded belief in worthlessness, upholding the cause of one group’s injury to the exclusion of individual others. The truth is, we will remain unable to see each other except as defined and ontologically ordered by age, race, gender, class, etc., superior or inferior, based upon perceivable qualities of difference until we switch the basis for our identities from outer material reality to inner, imagination-based reality. When we can recognize and obey the authority of the heart, the health of which is in wholeness, we will attain the inward ordering principle that ordains the good for one that is the same as the good for all.

A Culture of One

Surrounded for the past 18 years by young people attracted to our coffeeshop business in Utica, to our little renegade arts center and our anarchist ideals, even after retiring I’ve been mostly spared that dreaded old-person feeling of being shed like an old skin. But in these pandemic days, with the Cafe’s existence so precarious, with my almost exclusively face-to-face social life suspended, I’m inclined to feel abandoned, and to pity myself for it. This is how self-cancellation works!

Again and again, I’m tempted to see my abandoned plight as “just reward” for my “Luddite” refusal to go all the way with “the Second Industrial Revolution,” as author Kirkpatrick Sale calls it – in other words, to assent to my eradication. To date, I have no cell phone and thus no access to Ubers, no means for letting restaurants or supermarkets know I’m outside for my pick-up, nor access to a phone when I’m anywhere but in my home!! – a perfect recipe for obsolescence. But, was my refusing the “inevitability” of the Second Industrial Revolution, back when it first gained momentum, an act of self-cancellation or a refusal of the implicit idea that to retain my self worth I must follow where technology leads? Although serious ecological critique of digital technology had been made, perhaps due to the enthusiasm for the Internet’s democratic potential, few people were dissuaded from full immersion. Here was a moment for elders’ voices to be heard, a council in every small community that would consider the effects on seven generations, a conversation based not on neoliberal terms, but on the authority of the heart.

Orin’s and my decision to “draw a line,” as I see it now, was done just as if we had a culture of our own to defend. It was conservative in its disobedience to illegitimate authority, in the way of an immigrant refugee’s refusal to defer to national boundaries, or to learn English at cost of losing the native tongue, or to a Native American’s refusal to send her children to the white man’s schools, or a Black American’s refusal of systemic injustice. How did I, an outwardly conventional middle class liberal white woman come to make a decision so wrong, or at least wrong-headed , as if the rules of the liberal world did not apply to me? As if I were a genuine other? My short answer is this: coincidentally, during the period at the turn of the millennium when society was becoming fascinated by the Internet and later, immersed in social media, something was pulling me in a different direction. As consequence of recovery from an intense psycho-spiritual crisis I re-discovered my imagination and its energizing inner/creative reality. This discovery was personally revolutionary; the intrinsic fascination for me of having discovered a “New World” far surpassed what the Internet had to offer.

Though the life-changing discovery did not come until mid-life, from it I gained the understanding that freedom must be this: the restoration of the knowledge of my personal worth by accessing the enchanting (“hyper-real”) world of which the imaginative soul – the “genius” – is author and authorizer. The attainment of such an awesome inward capacity (powerful enough to cancel the false notion of personal worthlessness) must mean (so I interpreted it) that creative expression was my religious duty. Thus I came to worship in my “cult” of one, making a basis for a culture even if I were just one, as, rooted in it, I can never be one for I am connected in spirit with any others who likewise serve their creativity as conscious duty, and who in this way refuse the deep evil of self-cancellation.

Ir’s not self-deprecating of me to say that I am keenly aware of my limitations as a writer; I’m no exception to the rule of ordinariness, no one special. But my grand discovery included the realization that what I must do is exactly what I want to do (i.e, to express myself creatively)! There’s no place here for false humility; for refusing to be the soul’s “scribe” because I’m “not good enough,” or because “who would read what I write?” That would be absurd, as well as self-canceling! When one can be an instrument for the creative spirit – an experience of bliss – to refuse it is to say I am fit only to be a slave. Or, more benignly, fit only for that removal to the nursing home ghetto.

I write in order not to cancel the genius of my soul, ever fearful that I’m no way up to the task. To my way of seeing it, the objective of the creative spirit is always the same: it is to protest that my life matters. Aligning oneself with the creative spirit one speaks for its reality which is in everyone, and which unifies even as it differentiates. In this sense, and this alone, one can say “all lives matter,” understanding, as one says it, that making my life matter, through dedicating a portion of each day to my art and ideas, right up to the real and final “cancellation” that makes no exceptions, is up to me. It is up to each one to be willing to surrender to the (sacred) duty to create, and not to cancel. Further, regaining our culture through our own creative work, we may obtain the strength, in the intimate relationships where the power to cancel has its strongest hold on our souls, and where others need most to hear from us (i.e., from our otherness), to speak and act upon inner authority. This bottom-up revolution is the way it must happen if liberal society is ever to resist the dehumanization of neoliberal totality and its mean spirit of eradication.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.